When you come to think of it, there aren't many paintings that stick in the memory, not only because of their own haunting presence but also because they seem inextricably bound up with the position in which they are hung. It must be 15 years since I have seen John Singer Sargent's painting of "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit" in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and I don't know (and don't particularly care to find out) if it has been moved from the surprising location where I first encountered it. My persistent image is of it hung unusually low, completely by itself, round the corner at one end of a dark corridor on the way to some offices in the museum.
It was the kind of place where you might expect to find a minor work, dredged from storage to fill a gap -- not an eye-catching masterwork of such conscious and boldly stated certainties. It was an intensely dramatic setting, apparently by default, and perfectly suited the way the artist had obviously intended to make the floor of the Paris hallway in which the four girls posed as nearly as possible an extension of the floor on which the viewer would be standing.
At his most powerful, Sargent could make portraits that confront the observer with a frank immediacy very like the experience of actually meeting a person: and he could do this in spite of their being unashamedly contrived and posed. His subjects often stare out of the picture with a steady gaze. It is a select intimacy rendered unavoidable.
Made before Sargent became a successful and fashionable portraitist, this work also has the advantage of apparently being painted as much for its own sake as for the pleasure or flattery of a client. Boit was an artist friend. Had the work been an official commission, Sargent's sense of convention might not have permitted him the freedom to paint the oldest of the four girls with her profile almost lost in shadow (capturing an adolescent shyness) in contrast to the rather obedient stances of her younger sisters, and the unselconsciousness of the youngest daughter, holding her doll, and with her feet turned out.
Sargent's portrayal of children could sometimes give way to romantic sentimentaliy or an almost baroque theatricality -- but not always. There is the small girl in the front of "The Pailleron Children" sitting tensely on the edge of a couch. Or in another arresting picture there is a sailor-suited boy in a large, jaunty that, clinging with a confusion of boisterous reticence to an eagerly domineering mother. Sargent's picture of the Sitwell family also seems to penetrate without pretense into the self-enclosed ego-eccentricity of these strange people, odd adults disguised as children against their wills. At his most inspired, Sargent could make the consumption of a portrait subserve its psychology.
And the Boit daughters -- they are not just four engaging little girls dressed in pinafores and ascending in age, pictured in the year 1882. On one level it is true they can be seen as chairming parts in a pictorial organization reminiscent of Whistler and of Japanese prints and even of Degas's arrangement of dancers in strict interior spaces. Their white and black clothes also had an obvious appeal to a painter profoundy attracted to the strong painterly contrasts and coloristic economies of Velazquez. So also did the deep recess of the hallway itself, its dark shadows and striking flashes of sudden light. His love of surface and shine (he also admired the agility of Frans Hals and Manet) could be satisfied almost heriocally by the glaze of the giant Chinese vases which scale down the children and add their own unusualness to a picture full of mysteries.
But the deepest mysteries suggested the those of identity, of the separate characters and separate dreams of the four girls. Here is no show of sisterly closeness or affection. This might to some extent be the result of each child being painted apart from the others and then incorporated in the composition -- but it also comes from the artist's perspicacity.
The novelist Henry James observed, "The place is regarded as a whole. It is a scene, a comprehensive impression, yet nonetheless do the little figures in their white pinafores . . . detach themselves, and live with a personal life." The isolation of each individual stands not only in contrast to the childhood uniforms of the period but, accentuated by the divisions of the setting, is counter to the mere lumping together of the girls into an undifferentiated family. Emphatically Sargent did not depict them en masse like kittens or puppies. Their emergent characters are definite, and are definitely represented.